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I bend my knees against the ascending switchbacks, chipping away at the five-thousand-foot change in elevation between the parking lot at the fifth station and the summit of Mount Fuji. I gaze up into the gray sky and pray that the rain continues to hold off. I can't see the peak through the fog. I approach the wall of boulders, barely angled, forming a nearly vertical wall. My hiking boot slips on loose pebbles and I stumble, catching myself but landing ungracefully back on the trail. I take a deep breath as I clutch my climbing stick more tightly, find a better footing, and attempt to scale the wall a second time.
Jonathan nurses through the nights, his latch a knife to my breast. There is a story about a stranded mother who pierced her nipple to feed her starving baby with her own blood, once the milk had stopped flowing. Like that mother, I pour my identity, my future, my lifeblood out through ravaged flesh. A layer of clouds has descended on my mind, while the knife twists its blade into vulnerable tissue. As Jonathan's gums squeeze, I lose my breath and clench my eyes shut against the pain. I stagger through the hours between feedings, our typhoon shutters blocking out both sun and moon, so that day and night no longer matter.
I prepare to nurse Jonathan after dinner, bracing my body against the glider's wooden frame, adjusting the breastfeeding pillow, hoping to find a position that yields a comfortable latch. After the first excruciating moments, the pain subsides, throbbing to a dull ache. I exhale the temporary relief, settling into the cushions that are now molded to my form. While I cradle Jonathan, I succumb to sleep's oblivion, so that my mind floats along the clouds of semi-consciousness.
An internal timer blares, jolting me awake. My chest tightens, the first awareness of fear and loss. My eight weeks of maternity leave are about to expire.
The past two years have been filled with change. Moving across the United States—the second time in as many years—back to the East Coast, following my husband's orders with the USS Alaska. Completing graduate school, followed by job hunting—always hunting, never snaring an offer, despite being named a valedictorian among my class of counseling students. Receiving surprise orders to Yokosuka, Japan, the pee stick held in my sweaty palm, blazing the pink lines of pregnancy. Moving overseas at three months and occupying a room in the Navy Lodge. Beginning, with unexpected ease, a job as a government contractor on base, and in my field.
Here, we are foreigners—gaijin. We are strangers to the landscape protected by the mystical and formidable Mount Fuji, whose name in its original characters is said to mean peerless, immortal, or inexhaustible mountain. Neon signs blaze in kanji, illuminating my inability to communicate in Japanese, while unfamiliar sounds, words, overwhelm my ears. The smell of fish, unyielding, rolls my delicate stomach like waves in Tokyo Bay. My family is seven thousand miles and fourteen time zones away. At work, though, I am in my element. I belong.
My office is a haven of journal articles and quiet research. A deep satisfaction greater than the whole of those fragmented unsuccessful job applications fills me at my core, casting my previous failures into the irrelevant past. I'm looking ahead, planning to work toward my counseling license. Despite moving around as a Navy spouse, I've finished graduate school and am contributing to my profession. Pride and fulfillment—these are mine on a daily basis, and I have hope for my future career.
Or I did, before I had Jonathan. Now I'm a zombie, stumbling through the days with minimal brain activity, and my Stateside supervisor won't consider approving me to work from home. It's 2008, when women can conquer the world and have it all, but I'm facing the same choice as too many others have before me. My career or staying home with my baby: which do I choose?
The chest tightening gives way to sobs—ugly blubbering with shaking and snot. Still, I hold onto Jonathan, willing my emotional burst not to wake him up. He will rouse in forty-five minutes anyway, for another feeding, the next in an endless cycle of nourishment through my own physical agony. I am a washed-out shadow of my former self, a shade. How can I return to work?
I caress Jonathan's cheek, but bitterness poisons my touch. My heart yearns for an easiness in giving and receiving, for the joy I should find in his cheeks and gums, the soft skin that has only known the world for a short while. When I go to him, I want my instinct to be a smile. Instead, I cringe when I pick him up, knowing that I will have to offer him a breast that screams at the touch of his mouth as he takes what he needs.
My inner voice infiltrates, my chest tightening even more against the secret words. Do I love him?
New tears mingle with the old. If I could go back to being myself, the me before I had him, would I? My thoughts repulse me, sending me into a steeper spiral of guilt and disappointment. I cling to the pain—the same pain I curse on an hourly basis. Pain is my witness. Withstanding it is proof that I love my infant son. So also is the sacrifice I know I must make. I've already made the decision. It rattles inside me, in my emptiness, against my bones. I have to quit my job.
The acknowledgment settles like a stone in my stomach, the sobs come even more strongly. I control my breathing—the way I taught clients to do during my counseling internship—now morphing into Lamaze techniques. The sobs give way to a pang of insight: I gave birth without anesthesia, but here I sit, beaten by the pain of breastfeeding, a maternal act that has linked women from generation to generation since the first woman gave birth to the first child. The blurriness of my vision clears, my focus coming to rest on the boxes of baby clothes and other gear that sit in the dark in the corner of the nursery, unopened, untouched.
I lay Jonathan in the portable crib, waiting until I'm sure he's asleep. Downstairs, my husband holds me before I dial the number for my supervisor. I force my voice through the lump in my throat. One minute I am on maternity leave, and the next, I have resigned my position. I am that label I've dreaded: a stay-at-home mom with her degrees gathering dust like the closeted-away vacuum cleaner. The years of motherhood stretch ahead of me in an endless stream of exhaustion, days blended into nights. My brain is numb and my breasts are on fire. I have one goal: survival.
I push through the next month, coaxing myself out of bed at six-thirty every morning to the sound of Jonathan's cries, withstanding the pain that punctuates the hours. I watch episodes of CSI while nursing in the middle of the night and daydream about sleep and pre-motherhood life: studying, shopping, working, having coffee with friends; all of these without the breast shields that have become part of my wardrobe.
One indistinguishable morning, I pull Jonathan to me half-heartedly, bracing for the knife blade. I hesitate, pausing before offering myself. He latches on, and still I wait, poised to flinch. My fatigued mind takes a moment to register the change—the surprise—the cautious joy. The unwelcome guest is a no-show. The pain doesn't come.
Maybe he isn't nursing after all. I stare down at his peaceful face. I see his jaw muscles moving. Still, I'm skeptical. There is no sharpness, only the gentle suckling as he takes in milk, his downy head bobbing in rhythm. I stroke his crown, then his arms and legs. I let my body unclench, easing deeper into the cushions of the glider. Then it comes—the long-awaited, coveted moment of endorphins rushing through my nervous system, tingling into my muscles and tissues—the letdown. Though used in other contexts to mean a disappointment, for me, as a nursing mother, it is completeness. I surrender to whole-body relaxation. Peace.
The world stops moving.
Jonathan snuggles against me, more contentedly, perhaps sensing I'm no longer pulling away. Tears course down my cheeks, anointing this change in our relationship. My chest opens, my breath comes more easily, the moment expanding even as my world collapses in on itself to include only me with my baby. Before, the darkness of the nursery was suffocating, shrinking my world and reducing it to endless hours of pain and sleeplessness. Now, the dimness is soothing, lulling me back to sleep as I cradle him.
So, I think, this is what it means to live in the moment. In the now, I am cocooned with Jonathan in warmth and love and relief. As I nourish him, he nourishes me, and we thrive off of each other. I give a full confession of my hopes and disappointments, my whole being pouring into him, my love flowing along with the milk. I stroke his cheek and fall asleep.
The fog thins. Despite the continued sleep-deprivation, I have banished the pain of nursing for good, leaving me with gratitude for the hours I don't spend in clenched anguish and self-loathing, despising all the mothers for their ability to nurse with ease as well as myself for not being among them. I open the typhoon shutters and throw aside the curtains, allowing the sun's warmth and affection to pierce the darkness, sending dust motes awhirl in the new rays. I wander outside our skinny two-story house, buckling Jonathan into the jogging stroller for an early morning walk. We explore the winding streets of our neighborhood that caps a steep hill. New life surges through me, the satisfaction of walking, exploring, and caring for Jonathan filling the cavern left by giving up my job.
I take deep breaths of fresh air, my gaze far away on the glittering sapphire waters of Tokyo Bay. I wheel the stroller into the neighborhood grocery store, then heft it up the steps into the homeyness of the bakery, warm and alive with the yeasty scent of fresh bread. We greet our local baker, who offers a smile. I smile back, more broadly than in recent months. She stuffs an extra cream-cheese-filled pastry into our bag. Every walk gifts me with something new to see and Jonathan something new to reach for. With all the nursing and exercise, my appetite has grown ravenous, my palate inquisitive, hungry for new tastes. At dinner time, we walk the neighborhood again and my mouth waters at the aromas of curry and grilled fish imbuing the air, building on the fragrance of rosemary bushes that line the streets in hedgerows.
Our world enlarges. Our horizon expands. While Jonathan stretches his limbs first to crawl, then to cruise around downstairs, I find my own footing in the choir at the military chapel. He starts eating solid foods; I acquire a taste for sushi. During our walks, I brave more of our hill. My endurance increases and my muscles strengthen, as has my stability in this new mode of existing—this life as a mother.
I shed the baby weight, pushing the jogging stroller down and back up the unforgiving incline that leads from the Seaside Road to our neighborhood. At the right hour of sunset, I glimpse the outline of Mount Fuji, the revered mountain keeping watch over our progress. I imagine its rocks and crags, which, with the weather clear and the clouds sparse, seem close enough to touch. Many people, including Navy personnel and family members, climb it each year, a "must-do" while stationed in Yokosuka. Until now, I thought it was impossible. Maybe I can do it, I think, sipping water and staring into the blue sky above the mountain. Maybe I can climb Mount Fuji. The hill becomes my practice mountain, my personal Fujisan. When the weather shifts from blustery spring to the balminess of Jonathan's second summer, I no longer walk the hill—I run it.
I outstrip the fog bank and hike through the cloud ceiling, emerging into an azure sky. Below me is an ocean of gray, while the trail above is bathed in August sunlight. I watch my footing with every switchback, made treacherous with loose rocks and soil. At last, I reach a set of uneven stone stairs, flanked by komainu—lion statues with watchful gazes, guardians of the steps that lead to the ninth station. I climb the stairs, my eyes on the final torii gate that is the mark of a Shinto shrine. I am approaching something holy.
My breath comes in gasps at the top, my blood pulsating, joy overflowing in giddiness. Wisps escape my hat and blow about my face, which I tilt toward the sun. I am part of the landscape, another wildflower growing toward the sunlight. Adrenaline rushes down the neural pathways. My fingers tingle as though they had burned the brand into my hiking stick: Top, Mount Fuji, Alt. 12395 feet. The tears flow, but their stream down my cheeks carries more than the morning's five-hour exertion.
The peak is crowded with pilgrims and tourist-climbers, but I take this moment for myself, to celebrate. I absorb the sun's rays, soak in the fullness of the wind, not wanting to miss—or worse, forget—anything about this moment. The sky is a new blue, created just for me. Nothing has ever looked so clear.
I explore the peak, at its center an ashy depression. I chat with other hikers, whose grins mirror my own, including a Japanese man who spent the night on the mountain so that he could watch the sunrise this morning. I make my way to a rocky path that skirts a cliff and ends at a post office over two miles above sea level. Like the crater, the scenery here is primordial, a setting for volcanoes and warm shallow seas of the ancient past. Gazing backward into eons, I sense my place in the universe, in the timeline. I belong. I am whole.
Back at the top of the trail lies the village, where I duck inside one of the hut-like restaurants and dive into a much-deserved bowl of ramen whose salty pork flavors burst in my mouth. How far I've come since first arriving in Japan, when my noodles slid off their chopsticks, splashing back into the broth, taunting me with my ineptness. I slurp the last noodle and drain my bowl with a contented sigh. It's time to leave this sacred place, but I serve as a vessel. I carry its essence, a feeling of sacredness in the daily grind, the belief that I am grounded in my motherhood, even as I am twelve thousand feet above sea level. Joy-seeking, adventuring, persevering—all these words can now be added to the lexicon of my budding identity. I have clawed my way out of the valley and up the mountain, unearthing buried parts of myself and claiming new ones that had to be earned. I have climbed Mount Fuji. I can be a loving mother. Once again, I look to the future with hope.
I depart the sanctuary of the village in search of the descending trail, which follows a different path. I close my eyes, meditating for a moment on the lesson—there is no backtracking. Like the trail, I have changed. When I return to the fifth station, I will be different—subtly, perhaps, in my soul. I turn for one last view of the summit, picturing myself above the clouds, my body recalling the euphoria that is already fading. I wipe my moist cheeks and tuck my hair underneath my hat, firmly grasping my climbing stick with its burnt symbols and elevation markers. Filling my lungs with air from the summit, I start the hike back down.
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